"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Receiving Rate vs. "Starving Artist" Syndrome

Sweat trickles or teeth clatter for some professional storytellers when they are asked, “How much do you charge?”

Either the traditional path of the “starving artist” could be taken or the more self-respecting road of the financially independent.

Which road do you choose?

Ways to Combat “Starving Artist” Syndrome:
1. Polish your craft
2. Decide now what you want (as well as for exceptions)
3. Ask questions before giving rate
4. Speak with firm and confident voice (with pause)
5. Assume the positive

Polish your craft
The first storytelling gig you ever do will probably not be paid. It may go for the second, third, fourth and so on. This is fine, and even encouraged, for every storyteller needs to have some sort of apprenticeship time.

Recently I was asked what my training was as a storyteller. Sometimes I say, “Do you want the short or long answer?” I could spout things such as I started as a sophomore in high school and competed in the art. If the person opts for the long answer, I may share how my first story was a failure but I made a promise to prove to myself that I was a great storyteller. I could also delve into the how and why I started the Brigham Young University Storytelling Club or my venture of working on my Storytelling Masters program at East Tennessee State University.

My favorite answer is usually, “My mom said I was a storyteller as soon as I opened my mouth.”
No matter what examples are shared, the important part is that there is continual polishing of the craft and professional development.

The “starving artist” tends to forget all the training they went through to be who they are today. They are nervous to charge what they ought to charge because they ask themselves “Am I worth it?” If you happen to fall in this slump, then brainstorm a list of how you have improved yourself through the years.

Some ideas:
  • Telling at places (this could be a few pages already)
  • Attending storytelling and art conferences

  • Receiving time from coaches/mentors

  • Participating in local, regional, national, or international storytelling organizations

  • Pursuing higher education in your field

  • Researching stories and techniques at the library or other resource places


  • Decide now what you want (as well as for exceptions)
    Every so often the sponsor’s budget will fall short of your quoted rate. Figure out what amount is the lowest you would accept as well as what you would refuse.

    The artist inside the professional storyteller has a tendency to want to say “yes” to everything, which is part of the “starving artist” syndrome. I cringe when experienced tellers disrespect themselves by taking $25 or $50 for what could have easily been 10 times or more that amount. This could be the result of craving the stage and putting that love for it above the money to cover the costs we entail from each performance such as research, practice, travel, etc.

    At the same time, have you noticed how easy children are at saying “no”? Most likely they had parents, teachers, and other adults tell them “no” so many times that this answer naturally comes out of their mouth first. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood the “yes” word dominates our vocabulary.

    For example, let us say that someone can pay $250 out of your normal $300 rate. Some storytellers would be tempted to take the $250 and not say anything more. Yet, $50 is still missing. Before you get in this kind of situation—and you will many times—you need to brainstorm in-kind or service solutions.

    If in-kind or service solutions do not interest you, then this may be a gig in which you walk away. Storyteller Bill Harley has often said that you know you are a professional when you can say “no”.

    Not all budgets that fall short are bad. You may be surprised at how other types of payment could benefit you. Depending on what service or in-kind item is offered, I may indicate on my service agreement that I want at least half the payment to be in cash to cover my costs.

    Some venues have offered family passes for their places. Tellers with children may jump at these opportunities. Perhaps these tellers would also delight in trading for some free babysitting hours.

    Brainstorm your “power perks” beyond cash.

    These are some of mine and how I generally value them:

  • Research assistance for finding folktale variants ($20/hour--so if short $100 of my price, I would get 5 hours of research on top of the cash)
  • Office work such as stuffing envelopes, updating contacts, etc. ($10/hour)

  • Letters of recommendation (roughly $1 per contact, usually maxing at $50)

  • Books (retail value compared to my rate)

  • Home improvement gift cards (equal to my rate)

  • Business/Marketing/Skills training (equal trade of time)


  • With your list developed before sponsors call, you will be ready to offer suggestions if they are slightly off in their budgets. Whatever is decided, make a note in your service agreement. Then everyone will remember what was agreed and you have a win-win situation.

    Ask questions before giving rate
    Besides knowing the types of stories you like to tell, one of the first questions is “What is your rate?”

    If I am at a social event like through a Chamber of Commerce and the person generally wants a number, I state my hourly rate without going into details except to say that the rate is based on length of performance/workshop as well distance from my home. The person may simply want to know to budget accordingly in the future.

    Many times a specific event is implied, especially when a rough date or theme is given. Then I stall in stating my rate. I acknowledge that I will answer the rate question, though I would like to find out some things first.

    I gage by their vocal tone and/or body language as to how long I could ask questions to determine their expectations and needs. This reveals my professional side to the potential sponsor. Since they see that I want to have their event be as successful as possible, they are more likely to want to hire me when I give my rate afterwards regardless of what they had originally planned for their budget.

    Speak with firm and confident voice (with pause)
    Stating your rate should be just that—a statement.

    The “starving artist” has a waver to the voice that always ends in a question mark. Whenever a potential sponsor hears that tone, they know they can ask for a lower rate and be likely to receive it from you. Most people are in search of a good deal. However, this does not have to cut into your living as a professional storyteller.

    Say your fee in a few words. Memorize the phrase. If applicable, make constant eye contact. Then pause. Keep looking at them. You did your part and now it is up to the sponsor to respond. Give them time to assess how you could work within their budget.

    Assume the positive
    There are performance queries that have said “We don’t have much in our budget” or “We are non-profit”. The “starving artist” may take these words, turn pessimistic and assume payment of $25 or $50. When it comes to quoting rates, this kind of artist may chop from their normal fee before the potential sponsor has a chance to say what these statements really mean.

    If I see or hear such phrases, I ignore them. I state my fees and then ask, “What is your budget?”

    I had one government preschool group that claimed to have little budget. When I gave my fee, the lady on the phone had a smile in her voice and said, “I thought it would be more. We can afford you!”

    I have had other venues with “little budget” that talked to several storytellers asking for rates. Most, if not all the tellers had shared lower fees than me. Despite this difference, many times I received the gig. Perhaps asking questions and finding more about their event before committing helped. Whatever the reason, my fee did not faze them.



    So as another person asks your rate, be true to yourself and send the "starving artist" on the opposite road you are taking.

    Until we tell again,

    Rachel Hedman
    Professional Storyteller
    Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
    (801) 870-5799
    info@rachelhedman.com
    http://www.rachelhedman.com/
    http://www.yesalliance.com/

    1 comment:

    Sean said...

    Overall, pretty good post. Quoting the fee in an "hourly" format however is a Pandora's Box for botht the teller and the art form. I'm not a plumber, I don't work by the hour. I work for a set fee and I'll negotiate with a sponsor as per some of your ideas here.

    Nicely done.